John Calvin’s Conversion

“Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that that are his.  And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim 2:19).

The late Dave Hunt, a popular Christian author, wrote a book in which he did not exactly cover himself with glory.  In fact, it is a most shameful volume and detracts seriously from his character and has made his other books less trustworthy to me.  If he could perpetuate and promote lies such as those found in his attack on Calvinism in his book “What Love is This? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God”, how do I know he hasn’t taken the same approach with his other books, some of which I’ve read and benefited from?

Unfortunately, this book has become very influential and many people who want to know about Calvinism turn to it.  It was even recommended to me by a Baptist pastor with whom I’ve been discussing Calvinism.  Fortunately I was able to say I’ve read it twice and found it not only tediously repetitive but offensive because of the lies and slander about Calvin and Augustine.  It’s a book which seems to be thorough and complete, and many Christians see it as an authority. 

Of the various “untruths” in Hunt’s books, one of the worst is his claim that Calvin was not saved or not converted.  One of those who have read Hunt’s book in order to understand Calvinism is another well-known author, a Baptist named David Cloud.  He wrote a booklet against Calvinism titled “The Calvinism Debate” and one of his sources is obviously Dave Hunt’s book, for he says, “Calvin never gave a testimony of the new birth; rather he identified with his Catholic infant baptism”.  It is this lie which I want to refute in this article, and show that Calvin was biblical through and through, and was saved by the Spirit and the Word of God.  The change in his life was total and he dedicated his life to the service of God from that moment.

Unfortunately, much of what people today think they know about Calvin is probably gained either directly from his writings, or indirectly through people such as Dave Hunt and David Cloud.  The source of the slanders may have originated from a vengeful converted monk (he later returned to the Catholic Church) who vilified Calvin in print.  “But Calvin’s theological certitude withstood many challenges and conflicts, including the trial of Jerome Bolsec, a former Catholic monk who had become a Protestant physician.  Bolsec vigorously countered Calvin’s doctrine of predestination – the very underpinning of his clerical and civil authority.  (Bolsec was banished and later wrote a slanderous and historically destructive biography of Calvin.) In 1553, as public support for Calvin again ebbed lower, his supporters were once again galvanised by the arrest, trial, and execution of Miguel Servetus, the infamous author of a book that discounted the more universally accepted and fundamental doctrine of the Trinity.  Servetus had been arrested when he travelled to Geneva, and was later burned at the stake, though Calvin appealed for a more humane execution” (Preface to “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” p. xiv).   

But even the online Catholic Encyclopedia says of Bolsec’s biographies of Calvin and Beza, “These works are violent in tone, and find little favour with protestant writers. Their historical statements cannot always be relied on”CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Jerome-Hermes Bolsec (

Calvin’s’ Conversion (by Ellen G. White)

Ellen G. White, of Seventh Day Adventist fame, describes Calvin’s conversion in her most famous book, “The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan”.  While I don’t endorse the unique doctrines of the SDAs, nor Mrs White’s prophecies, she did quote extensively from orthodox and accepted Protestant authors; this account of Calvin’s conversion is no exception.  She writes:

“As in apostolic days, persecution had ‘fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel’ (Phil 1:12).  Driven from Paris and Meaux, ‘they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word’ (Acts 8:4).  And thus the light found its way into many of the remotest provinces of France.

God was still preparing workers to extend his cause.  In one of the schools of Paris was a thoughtful, quiet, youth, already giving evidence of a powerful and penetrating mind, and no less marked for the blamelessness of his life than for intellectual ardour and religious devotion.  His genius and application soon made him the pride of the college, and it was confidently anticipated that John Calvin would become one of the ablest and most honored defenders of the church.  But a ray of divine light penetrated even within the walls of scholasticism by which Calvin was enclosed.  He heard of the new doctrines with a shudder, nothing doubting that the heretics deserved the fire to which they were given.  Yet all unwittingly he was brought face to face with the heresy, and forced to test the power of Romish theology to combat the Protestant teaching.

A cousin of Calvin’s, who had joined the reformers, was in Paris.  The two kinsmen often met, and discussed together the matters that were disturbing Christendom.  ‘There are but two religions in the world’, said Olivetan, the Protestant.  ‘The one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works; the other is that one religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches men to look for salvation solely to the free grace of God’.  ‘I will have none of your new doctrines’, exclaimed Calvin; ‘think you that I have lived in error all my days?’

But thoughts had been awakened in his mind which he could not banish at will.  Alone in his chamber he pondered upon his cousin’s words.  Conviction of sin fastened upon him; he saw himself, without an intercessor, in the presence of a holy and just Judge.  The mediation of saints, good works, the ceremonies of the church, all were powerless to atone for sin.  He could see before him nothing but the blackness of eternal despair.  In vain the doctors of the church endeavoured to relieve his woe.  Confession, penance, were resorted to in vain; they could not reconcile the soul with God.

While still engaged in these fruitless struggles, Calvin, chancing one day to visit one of the public squares, witnessed there the burning of a heretic.  He was filled with wonder at the expression of peace which rested upon the martyr’s countenance.  Amid the tortures of that dreadful death, and under the more terrible condemnation of the church, he manifested a faith and courage which the young student painfully contrasted with his own despair and darkness, while living in strictest obedience to the church.  Upon the Bible, he knew, the heretics rested their faith.  He determined to study it, and discover, if he could, the secret of their joy.

In the Bible he found Christ.  ‘O Father’, he cried, ‘his sacrifice has appeased thy wrath; his blood has washed away my impurities; his cross has borne my curse; his death has atoned for me.  We had devised for ourselves many useless follies, but thou hast touched my heart, in order that I may hold in abomination all other merits save those of Jesus’.

Calvin had been educated for the priesthood.  When only twelve years of age he had been appointed to the chaplaincy of a small church, and his head had been shorn by the bishop in accordance with the canon of the church.  He did not receive consecration, nor did he fulfil the duties of a priest, but he became a member of the clergy, holding the title of his office, and receiving an allowance in consideration thereof.

Now, feeling that he could never become a priest, he turned for a time to the study of law, but finally abandoned this purpose, and determined to devote his life to the gospel.  But he hesitated to become a public teacher.  He was naturally timid, and was burdened with the sense of the weighty responsibility of the position, and he desired to still devote himself to study.  The earnest entreaties of his friends, however, at last won his consent.  ‘Wonderful it is’, he said, ‘that one of so lowly an origin should be exalted to so great dignity’.

Quietly did Calvin enter upon his work, and his words were as the dew falling to refresh the earth.  He had left Paris, and was now in a provincial town under the protection of the princess Margaret, who, loving the gospel, extended her protection to its disciples.  Calvin was a still a youth, of gentle, unpretentious bearing.   His work began with the people at their homes.  Surrounded by the members of the household, he read the Bible, and opened the truths of salvation.  Those who heard the message, carried the good news to others, and soon the teacher passed beyond the city to the outlying towns and hamlets.  To both the castle and the cabin he found entrance, and he went forward, laying the foundation of churches that were to yield fearless witnesses for the truth.

A few months and he was again in Paris.   There was unwonted agitation in the circle of learned men and scholars.  The study of the ancient languages had led men to the Bible, and many whose hearts were untouched by its truths were eagerly discussing them, and even giving battle to the champions of Romanism.  Calvin, though an able combatant in the fields of theological controversy, had a higher mission to accomplish than that of these noisy schoolmen.  The minds of men were stirred, and now was the time to open to them the truth.  While the halls of the universities were filled with the clamour of theological disputation, Calvin was making his way from house to house, opening the Bible to the people, and speaking to them of Christ and him crucified”.

From: White, Ellen G. “The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan”, Chapter: “The French Reformation”, 1893, p. 219-221, publ. International Tract Society, London, England.

Calvin’s Conversion (by William Wileman)

One of Calvin’s many biographers, William Wileman, also gives us an account of Calvin’s conversion.  He describes the discussion between Calvin and his cousin, Robert Olivetan, which led to Calvin’s salvation and new birth.  He says, in part:

There are only two religions in the world’.  This appears to have been the sword-thrust from the lips of Olivetan which silenced his cousin.  He persisted in showing that one religion was invented by man, and consisted in the supposed merit of good works; and that the religion that came from God was wrought in the heart by God himself as its Author and Finisher.

In plain terms, he pleaded that salvation is entirely of grace, through faith, not of works, but the gift of God…..The arrow of conviction having thus been fixed in the heart and conscience of the young student, none but the same hand could draw it out.  Calvin could not comfort himself, nor would he accept comfort from his cousin.  But Olivetan did all he could to persuade Calvin to study the Scriptures…..God continued to show him more clearly every day that there was no salvation by the works of the law or by human merit; that the law could only curse him, and that his own works were defiled and dead.  Herein was the whole of the Reformation being enacted first in the soul of the Reformer.  It is ever so.

None but a saved sinner can preach salvation by grace; none but a crucified man can preach a crucified Christ.  ‘Every time I went down into myself’ he tells us of this conflict, ‘or raised my heart to God, so extreme a horror fell upon me that no purifications, no satisfactions, could cure me of it.  And the more closely I considered myself, the sharper were the goads that pressed my conscience, so that there remained no other comfort than to forget myself’….

…..In this trouble of soul, Calvin went to the Bible.  He opened, he read, he discovered.  As he continued to open the Word, it was opened to his renewed understanding.  As he read, it was read to him by its Author.  As he discovered its holy doctrines, they were applied to him by the hand that wrote them.  In them he learned this essential truth: ‘Neither is there salvation in any other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved’.

At length the day dawned, and the darkness fled away.  As he read and looked away from self, he came to this: ‘But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5).

By the application of this word he received the atonement, joyfully believing in Jesus.  ‘O Father’, he responded, ‘His sacrifice has appeased Thy wrath; His blood has washed away my impurities; His cross has borne my curse; His death has atoned for me!’

On that day salvation came to that heart (Luke 19:9), and the Reformation in France was begun

The entrance of God’s words gave light to Calvin, and lighted a candle that is burning to this day” (Kindle pages 14 – 17; emphases added).

From: Wileman, William, “John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching, And His Influence”, Kindle edition, pub E4 Group, 2020.  Original publication details: William Wileman’s (1848-1944) John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence (London: Robert Banks & Son, ca. 1909).